Fifty-Third Street—An Endangered Species?

21 Apr

Fifty-Third Street—An Endangered Species?


I wrote this piece eight years—before I became disabled and before developers decided that Fifty Third Street should be upscaled, commensurate with their image of Hyde Park as “world-class” neighborhood.  Here I am celebrating the street before it became an endangered species.  In the early 1960s, my description would have fit Fifty-Fifth Street.  As a result Urban Renewal, that street was resculptured beyond recognition—it moved literally two blocks north to Fifty-Third.  The question now:  Where will it move now?  The re-development is not complete, but already five or six of the places mentioned here are no longer in existence—replaced by trendier (and more expensive) tenants—a fancy clothing store is prominent now, as well as sleek hotel, and national restaurant chains will replace locally owned stores.  Valois (see last paragraph), fortunately, will remain—perhaps because of its presidential connections.


            A regular venue for me was World Gym on 53rd street–a storefront facility, the space where Woolworth’s five-and-dime used to be.  The exercise machines face the street, which means that the main item of interest as one is pumping the stationary bike, or the stair-stepper is the multicultural 53rd street population that flows back and forth past the storefront.  And the people that flow into the gym, as well—they are a microcosm of the street humanity.  Several races, both genders,   The background for the street scenes is the United Church of Hyde Park just opposite the gym, including its parish house wing, whose lintel has inscribed in it “Rittenhouse Memorial,” indicating a Presbyterian element in its past, if not its present (it is more Methodist and U.C.C.).  Last Saturday, the event of interest was a wedding and the people in finery waiting outside for the happy couple emerge afterwards.


            I am an inveterate people-watcher in any circumstance, so this is a congenial environment for my workouts.  People-watching far surpasses TV watching or propped-up book reading as a way to pass the time in what are essentially boring aerobic exercises.  In the course of my weeks there, I have come to realize that there are eight or ten basic body-types that clothing manufacturers have to take into account, and also that there are quite a few different shoe styles, most of them, apparently, painful or uncomfortable to the feet.  And the hair-dos that Homo sapiens loves to sport! 


            I am impressed with how many packages a mother (or care-giver) can juggle while she and her small charge, always either half a stride ahead of her or behind, balance ice cream cones.  Equally admirable is how much time young men can spend lounging around a parking meter sharing whatever young men share today as they talk together.  And how many times the same young women can slowly saunter past those same young men, sometimes attracting notice, sometimes not.  I’ve not yet decided whether the frequent back’s-and-forth’s of these young women indicate that their sauntering intentions are being appreciated or just the opposite.  The homeless and hungry are present, too, asking for help—a reminder of those our society has left behind.


            The instant, if superficial, camaraderie of the gym makes it a pleasant interlude from the daily schedule.  One of my regular bicycle cohorts limps and uses a cane.  Today he lifted his pants leg to make an adjustment, and I see that he has an artificial leg from the knee down.  There is the man older than I am, who looks too feeble to be in a gym, who lifts weights after he has done the bicycle.  He clearly views me as a soul brother, so glad that at least one other senior citizen is in the place.  And there are those huge, powerful young men in the locker room, whose bodies make it clear to me just how out of shape I am, how out of shape I have always been!  What I have come to learn is how gentle and friendly these behemoths can be, even to old-geezers.  And that many of them are physical laborers in their off-gym lives. I think they are mostly men who have been athletes in high school (or college) and are trying to maintain their superb fitness.  One of them said to me the other day, “You know what I would consider a great day?  Having a day off from work, spending half the day here in the gym, and the rest of the day walking on the street, holding hands with my girlfriend.”


            The yuppies are there, as well, going through their routines with the intensity that suggests they are adhering to some fitness manual engraved in their short-term memory bank.  Some of them, like me, carry their little notebooks with them, keeping track of each day’s performance.  The women—talk about a variety of body-types!  The petite Asian women who seem to be able to stair-step for hours on end without breaking a sweat, sometimes reading a magazine as if they were sitting on a park bench in serene setting.  Contrast these with the big-boned tall women who lift weights and run on the treadmill as if they really mean business.  The kind one would not want to meet in a dark alley.  There are those who are dressed as skimpily as possible which isn’t very skimpy, really, as if the heat were killing them, and others so bundled up that one would think they were outdoors in midwinter. 


            One of the delights of using the World Gym regularly is the ambience of Fifty-Third Street.  I had known this scene casually, mainly from driving by, but now I am noticing the particularities.  The (Asian) Indian cafeteria, with tasty samosas, greens, and chickpea concoctions.  The health food store with the sign board on the sidewalk proclaiming, “Sports nutrition inside.”  A few steps away from the sidewalk advertising that announces, “Psychic reader upstairs, walk-ins welcome!”  There is much more, including the kidney dialysis unit next to the gym, with its assortment of people going in and out, and sometimes waiting outside for their friends or relatives to finish their sessions.  A cityscape mélange:  the gym full of people trying to stave off the kind of physical conditions that the dialysis unit treats.  The health food store and the psychic reader offer a balm—physical and spiritual—that both sets of clients can find consoling, I suppose.  Not to mention the church, of course.  Perhaps one could say that the psychic and the Christian church, each in its own way, witnesses to the ultimate futility of the other three: health food store, gym, and clinic.  Of course, there is the jewelry store next to the church (Supreme Jewelry), perhaps the oldest business on the street, which caters to all clienteles, decorating both their bodies and their egos while they saunter or run through the life-scripts they are acting out.  In the meantime, of course, there’s a movie house on the corner, right across from Starbuck’s, which, in turn, is practically next door to the socially-aware medical clinic of Quentin Young, long-time advocate for national health care and neighborhood clinics. The entrance to this landscape, at 53rd and Lake Park, ushers one into the scene, with Hollywood Video on one corner, and the Hyde Park Bank on the other, with an upscale wine and cheese shop squeezed into a corner of the bank building.  Valois, a classic cafeteria with a storied history is next to the video store.  Its multi-racial clientele was the subject of a sociology dissertation, published under the title, Slim’s Table.  Today, the menu offers the same breakfasts that Barack Obama has eaten there over the years.


            The entire human drama was here on Fifty-Third Street.  World Gym and too much of the rest is becoming only a memory.


(This posting is much longer than the previous ones—let me know if you prefer shorter pieces.)


One Response to “Fifty-Third Street—An Endangered Species?”

  1. Tom Ford April 21, 2013 at 3:09 am #

    Very well done! Lots of 53rd St. memories. Especially O’Gara’s Bookstore before they moved.

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